The ever-shrinking world of music media recently got a little smaller—or bigger, depending on how you look at it. At a time when print music magazines have all but disappeared—The Fader hasn’t published an issue this year; Q closed this summer; NME ended its print edition in 2018, preceded by Vibe in 2014 and Spin in 2012; Pitchfork shuttered its specialty quarterly a few years ago; and The Village Voice, which helped establish music criticism as a staple of the alternative press, is long dead—two of the last ones standing have joined forces. The parent companies of Rolling Stone, still the cover story that signifies a rising music star’s permanent arrival, and Billboard, keeper of the charts and chronicler of the popular, announced a joint venture last week that has reverberated throughout the entertainment industry.
Dubbed PMRC (just like the music censorship group), the deal unites Penske Media Corporation (PMC) and MRC (formerly Media Rights Capital), better known for their stable of music and entertainment publications: Rolling Stone, Variety, Deadline, IndieWire, and Music Business Worldwide, among others, at Penske; Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and Vibe at MRC. (Full disclosure: I used to work at Spin, previously owned by MRC, before it was sold to a private equity group in early 2020.) Penske and MRC have been careful not to call it a merger or acquisition, though MediaPost reports Penske will own 80 percent of the new company. As Deadline reported today, MRC will lay off approximately 50 people as a result (mostly in operations), following an earlier round of layoffs in April. Representatives for MRC and Penske did not return Pitchfork’s requests for comment.
Based on the companies’ public statements, the joint venture appears to represent a specialization of strengths. Penske, which operates a range of consumer-facing and industry-focused publications in print and online, will take over operations at Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, and Vibe. MRC will focus on adapting the various brands’ existing IP to other formats, looking for more opportunities like War Dogs, the 2016 movie based on a Rolling Stone article. It’s a role that plays off MRC’s established track record in film and television production, as the company behind hits like House of Cards and Baby Driver, as well as the owner of Dick Clark Productions, host of the eponymous New Years’ Eve telecast, the American Music Awards, and more. The combination represents a potentially lucrative strategy to cash in on every part of a franchise, from the first magazine article to the eventual merchandising rights.
“There’s a lot of vertical integration happening with this merger, or whatever we’re calling it,” says Chris Molanphy, a Slate columnist and longtime chart-watcher who hosts the Hit Parade podcast. He compares it to the 2010 merger of Live Nation and Ticketmaster, a deal widely criticized for placing corporate concert venues, major artists’ tours, and consumer ticketing in contractual lockstep. “Their argument at the time, when the music industry was about a decade into its downturn after Napster, was, ‘Yes, we may have a significant chunk of the live music business, but the entire music business is facing challenges in all directions,’” Molanphy says. “On a much smaller scale, I imagine Penske and MRC would make a similar argument: ‘The music business is on an upswing right now, but music media is a challenging business in the 21st century, so we need scale, we need to get bigger to effectively compete.’”
Cherie Hu, who publishes the newsletter Water & Music and has covered the industry as a freelancer for many of the titles involved, sees a parallel between the PMRC deal and recent moves by Warner Music Group, one of the three major record labels, to acquire media companies like HipHopDX, Uproxx, and meme powerhouse IMGN Media. “In Warner Music’s case, the fear is around editorial objectivity of these blogs,” she says. “The deal between MRC and Penske magnifies that, because the reach of the publications involved is much, much bigger.” The inherent irony of entertainment media consolidation is also not lost on Hu. “Trade publications—which are supposed to be, in theory, independent reporters of what’s happening—are facing the same trends as the industry they cover. It’s hard for them to write on their own evolution.”
Rolling Stone’s most recent evolution started when Penske purchased a majority stake from founder Jann Wenner in 2017; the company obtained the rest of the magazine last year. Since then, the brand—once synonymous with 1960s counterculture—has tried to crash Billboard’s party by launching its own charts, beefing up industry-facing coverage, and installing paywalls. To power the Rolling Stone charts, Penske acquired a stake in BuzzAngle Music (now Alpha Data), which tracks music sales and streaming, much like Billboard’s MRC Data (formerly Nielsen SoundScan). Now both sets of charts are under the same roof. “I can’t imagine that it makes much sense for Rolling Stone to have a competing chart, but Billboard has such an array of charts, perhaps the Rolling Stone formula will exist side by side with the Hot 100 and provide a different view,” suggests Molanphy, noting that Rolling Stone’s calculations tend to emphasize music that’s performing well on streaming, while Billboard’s include radio airplay. Besides, Billboard wasn’t always the only name in charts: Defunct industry magazines like Radio & Records and Cashbox once maintained their own unique methodologies, too.
But duplicate charts represent just one of several areas of redundancy created by the PMRC deal, and how the new venture chooses to handle them will illustrate its priorities. Though the publications continue to operate independently for now, Hu predicts editorial consolidation at Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, which cover similar beats and often compete for scoops. (The alliance of Hollywood’s two most prominent trade magazines “smells like defeat to industry insiders,” reports Adweek’s Sara Jerde.) PMRC’s flagship music outlets, while more alike than they were a few years ago, still seem distinct. “I don’t see any danger that Rolling Stone and Billboard will become one publication,” Molanphy says. “Billboard is the bible of the music business; Rolling Stone is a consumer-oriented publication with a political side and a pop culture side in addition to all the music it covers.” Even so, Hu sees “a lot of overlap” in readership, suggesting that PMRC might consider offering bundled subscriptions.
Of course, this kind of subscription bundle would ultimately represent less consumer choice, not more. One concern within the industry is that centralization could have a homogenizing effect on coverage. With so many pages and videos to fill, a big, multi-hyphenate celebrity who can appeal to many different audiences, across multiple platforms, may seem more attractive than ever. Molanphy pushes back on this view, arguing that the music business is just too unpredictable. “Consolidation always worries people in terms of how it will hurt small artists—the little guy, so to speak,” he says. “As somebody who follows the charts, what’s amazing in the last five to 10 years as streaming and outside actors like TikTok have started to take over is that there’s more virality, more pleasant randomness, than at any time in my memory. You never know what’s going to break on TikTok—Roddy Ricch scored one of the biggest hits of the year with a song that took off because of a noise in the first 10 seconds.”
There is also the possibility that, with reduced pressure to compete for readers, each title can build on its strengths and clear space for deeper reporting. Hu hopes to see expanded coverage in areas where Rolling Stone and Billboard have traditionally fallen short, like the “so-called emerging markets” in Asia and Africa. But with so many brands and competing lines of business under the PMRC umbrella, it’s hard to predict where resources will end up. “The fact [is], these parent companies are certainly not independent,” she says. “I think that indirectly affects the kind of stories they’re focused on, and the extent to which they can be critical of the industry in which they’re participating.”
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork